How to Introduce Sight Words in 7 Easy Steps

Speak to any elementary teacher about reading and shortly into the conversation, you'll hear about the importance of sight words.  We stress how essential it is to practice them during parent conferences.  We see evidence of students' practice in classroom lists, graphs, and other artifacts.  We all agree that sight words are an integral part of the reading program. But I was frustrated early in my teaching career because I wasn't sure how to teach the sight words, beyond using word cards and lists and asking students to memorize them.  What was I supposed to do as the teacher to help the students learn the words?  My school at the time was using a scripted literacy program that taught them in a strange way.  Whenever the students encountered a sight word in a passage, we were supposed to interrupt and say "Funny word!  Let's sound it out the funny way.   That's not how you say the word.  This word is ____."

Frankly, I hated that method of introducing the sight words.  I thought it dumbed down the teaching and interrupted the flow of students' reading.  It treated the students like idiots incapable of thinking and analyzing words on their own.  Out of desperation I created a different approach.

It was around Christmas time, so I decided to categorize the sight words as nice or naughty, like they say in the carol lyrics.  My first grade class took to this new way of dealing with sight words quickly, and within a month, they were transferring their understanding to other words they found in books.  Since then (which was December 2013), I have used this method with hundreds of my reading students, ranging from first to fifth grade, and they all understood the technique.

the RDNG sight words method

  1. Teach the whole class and/or small groups the difference between regular and irregular words.

    • Nice/Regular words are easy to read. They follow the sound rules. The letters you see match the sounds you hear.

    • Naughty/Irregular words are harder to read. They break the sound rules. The letters do not match the sounds.

  2. Teach a list of 20-30 words at a time. I usually divide the Dolch word lists in half.

  3. Go through each word with students and code it as regular or irregular (nice or naughty). Most students enjoy putting smile and frown faces/emojis beside the words.

  4. For words coded as irregular, help students come up with the way the word should be spelled. I ask the kids "How would you spell this word if you were the boss of English?" Examples: said=sed (like red, bed); of=uv; where=wair (like lair, hair). My students need more help with this the first few lessons but can gradually do it on their own as we progress through the sight word levels.

  5. Provide students with practice time to read and spell the words. They should locate them in books and use them in sentences. They can build the words with letter tiles, rainbow markers, and other reading manipulatives.

  6. Assess the words after a period of 1-4 weeks. Test students' reading and spelling of the sight words. Aim for 80% mastery or higher to advance to the next list of words.

  7. Listen, observe, and discuss words with students. More and more of your readers will show you words from their books, sharing statements such as "Hey, this is one of those naughty words" or "I noticed this word has letters that don't match the sounds" or "Oh, this must be one of those irregular words that can't be sounded out." Do an inner happy dance (or outward one if that's your teaching style) when you observe these because they're signs of sight word learning being internalized and transferred!!!!!

This is my way of teaching sight words to my at-risk and ESOL students.  It has helped my struggling readers develop a strategy for decoding and recognizing high frequency words.

How do you approach sight word instruction in your classroom?  What methods have helped your students master the sight words?  Please share your best practices below in the comments or write me at'd love to hear more!